Seat belt campaign aims to save lives

It’s an ironclad aphorism authorities have repeated for years: Seat belts save lives.

The act of buckling up, studies have shown, remains the most effective means of preventing injury and death in an automobile crash.

Yet law enforcement officials are frequently reminded of the tragic consequences of noncompliance, like a rollover crash that claimed the life of a 10-year-old girl Monday in Tangipahoa Parish.

“I don’t know how simple to put this,” State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson said. “One of the safest things you can do when you get behind the wheel of a car is to buckle your seat belt.”

The message will be amplified from Shreveport to Grand Isle this week as state and local authorities begin the annual “Click It or Ticket” campaign, a widely-lauded crackdown coordinated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Seat belt use has drastically increased in Louisiana since the state passed its first mandatory seat belt law, according to the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, soaring from 12 percent in the mid-1980s to an unprecedented 79.3 percent in 2012.

But that mark lags behind the national average of 86 percent recorded last year, a gap authorities say they will seek to close through public awareness and slapping violators with fines they’ll remember.

“There were over 20,000 citations for not wearing seat belts issued last year during this time period,” said John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission. “We hope that this year we have no citations issued because people have buckled up, because we know if that happens the fatalities are going to drop tremendously.”

Statistics point to lots of room for improvement. Last year, a statewide survey found that 73.5 percent of Baton Rouge motorists were buckling up — compared to 81.2 percent in New Orleans and 83.7 in Lafayette.

Younger motorists and drivers of pickups are notoriously less willing to buckle up and face a heightened risk. Indeed, 64 percent of young adults — ages 18 to 34 — killed in crashes in 2011 were not wearing a seat belt, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This year’s campaign is the largest ever in Louisiana, with 132 law enforcement agencies conducting overtime patrols and checkpoints through June 2. The crackdown coincides with Memorial Day weekend, which traditionally has brought a high number of highway deaths in Louisiana.

Surveys show some Louisianians — about a third of licensed drivers — are unaware of a 2009 law requiring rear-seat passengers to buckle up as well.

“Those lives are just as important as the drivers,” LeBlanc said, noting unrestrained passengers can become dangerous “projectiles” during a violent crash.

The importance of passengers wearing safety belts was cast into sharp relief in a crash on Monday that killed 10-year-old Byronee Jackson and injured three of her siblings in Independence.

An unlicensed 15-year-old girl, whom authorities have not named, was driving her younger siblings to baseball practice when the crash occurred, said Trooper First Class Nick Manale, a State Police spokesman.

The children had not been on the road long when the girl told her siblings to buckle their seat belts, Manale said. But as the driver was trying to fasten her own belt, she began to drift off the side of La. 1054, panicked and “overcorrected,” causing the car to veer into a ditch and flip over, Manale said.

Byronee and her 12-year-old brother were thrown from the vehicle. The driver, the 12-year-old and their 9-year-old brother were taken to North Oaks Medical Center with minor to moderate injuries, Manale said.

Byronee was pronounced dead at Lallie Kemp Regional Medical Center.

Manale said the full impact of a fatal crash like Monday is “very evident” to first responders.

“Many troopers try to use the tragic events in a positive way by motivating themselves to work tirelessly to prevent this type of event from occurring to another family,” Manale said. “Situations similar to this crash are the reasons why troopers will work in the heat all day writing speeding, seat belt, child seat, and other dangerous violation tickets in the hope that their efforts will prevent another family from enduring the grief of losing a child or loved one.”

Editor’s note: The story was modified on May 23, 2013, to correct the percentage of Louisiana motorists that state officials say are not aware of a 2009 law requiring rear passengers to buckle up. It is one-third, not two-thirds. The Advocate regrets the error.